Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Technological Literacy Poster Child

I love nanotechnology not because it touches so many areas of science, engineering, politics, sociology, and technology. I love it because it grabs these areas. It forces us to view these areas differently. It promises us tools for impacting these areas. This summer I am again teaching the nanotechnology course in the COSMOS program at UC Santa Cruz, giving me opportunity to lead 17 precocious high school students through the field of nanotechnology…and learn a great deal myself. Holger Schmidt is coteaching with me. Guest lecturers include Robert Cormia, Mark Akeson, Jonathan Trent, Joel Kubby, and Ali Shakouri.

Two weeks ago I opened with an overview of nanotechnology using, of course, ICE-9. We covered what is nanotechnology, why do we use it, where does it come from, and started how does it work. To bring out the concepts underlying how nanotechnology works, we watched a clip from the movie Terminator 2. The liquid metal robot could reassemble itself after being blown apart. It could also assume different shapes. Though beyond our manufacturing technology, we discussed what approach we would take to design such a system. For well over an hour, students discussed and debated distributed computing, information, and decision-making. They considered resilience, energy sources, communication efficiency among billions or trillions of nanobots, and algorithms for deciding if a part is blown so far away from the rest of the system that it’s more efficient to replicate that part than retrieve and reintegrate it. Discussion even became a bit heated when differing approaches emphasized nearer-term practicality versus resilience.

That discussion opened at the end of my first lecture and then preempted my second lecture. If my students are enthusiastically wrestling with technological concepts, I’m hardly going to interrupt that with a lecture. They will remember their design tradeoffs long past when they forget facts I read from a PowerPoint slide. TA Matt Rutishauser and I sprinkled our own ideas into their discussion (e.g. a flatworm can regrow two heads if its head is cut in half & holograms offer a model for distribution of information across a physical object). Mostly, I played gatekeeper, making sure that one student did not monopolize discussion and that quiet students did not wait indefinitely for a sufficiently long pause before jumping in (I sometimes do this, so I am sympathetic).

The lecture I would have given would have finished how nanotechnology works and covered how it changes, how it changes us, how we change it, what its costs & benefits are, and how we evaluate it. Familiar questions to anyone who knows KnowledgeContext’s approach to technological literacy. With a full slate of guest lecturers addressing their areas of research, it will be hard to fit this lecture in, though having it in case of a no-show is reassuring. Another lecture/discussion I am looking forward to trying out is showing a video of venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson discussing nanotechnology at Stanford. My plan is to freeze the video whenever a student or I want to discuss a point. That would be much more interactive than standard lectures, in which I suspect students receive far more information than they are capable of assimilating. If we give them a chance to make meaning out of the content—to figure out its context and its impact on their own lives—they would get more value. Standard lecture technique seems archaic to me.

Lecture slides are linked from the course schedule. If you have or know of bright high school students interested in science, math, and engineering, check out COSMOS at UC Santa Cruz, Davis, Irvine, or San Diego.